Category: VRM (page 1 of 22)

Let’s give some @VRM help to the @CFPB

cfpbThe Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (@CFPB) is looking to help you help them—plus everybody else who uses financial services.

They explain:

Many new financial innovations rely on people choosing to give a company access to their digital financial records held by another company. If you’re using these kinds of services, we’d love to hear from you…

Make your voice heard. Share your comments on Facebook or Twitter . If you want to give us more details, you can share your story with us through our website. To see and respond to the full range of questions we’re interested in learning about, visit our formal Request for Information

For example,

Services that rely on consumers granting access to their financial records include:

  • Budgeting analysis and advice:  Some tools let people set budgets and analyze their spending activity.  The tools organize your purchases across multiple accounts into categories like food, health care, and entertainment so you can see trends. Some services send a text or email notification when a spending category is close to being over-budget.

  • Product recommendations: Some tools may make recommendations for new financial products based on your financial history. For example, if your records show that you have a lot of ATM fees, a tool might recommend other checking accounts with lower or no ATM fees.

  • Account verification: Many companies need you to verify your identity and bank account information. Access to your financial records can speed that process.

  • Loan applications: Some lenders may access your financial records to confirm your income and other information on your loan application.

  • Automatic or motivational savings: Some companies analyze your records to provide you with automatic savings programs and messages to keep you motivated to save.

  • Bill payment: Some services may collect your bills and help you organize your payments in a timely manner.

  • Fraud and identity theft protection: Some services analyze your records across various accounts to alert you about potentially fraudulent transactions.

  • Investment management: Some services use your account records to help you manage your investments.

A little more about the CFPB:

Our job is to put consumers first and help them take more control over their financial lives. We’re the one federal agency with the sole mission of protecting consumers in the financial marketplace. We want to make sure that consumer financial products and services are helping people rather than harming them.

A hat tip to @GeneKoo (an old Berkman Klein colleague) at the CFPB,  who sees our work with ProjectVRM as especially relevant to what they’re doing.  Of course, we agree. So let’s help them help us, and everybody else in the process.

Some additional links:

We’re done with Phase One

Here’s a picture that’s worth more than a thousand words:

maif-vrm

He’s with MAIF, the French insurance company, speaking at MyData 2016 in Helsinki, a little over a month ago. Here’s another:

sean-vrm

That’s Sean Bohan, head of our steering committee, expanding on what many people at the conference already knew.

I was there too, giving the morning keynote on Day 2:

cupfu1hxeaa4thh

It was an entirely new talk. Pretty good one too, especially since  I came up with it the night before.

See, by the end of Day 1, it was clear that pretty much everybody at the conference already knew how market power was shifting from centralized industries to distributed individuals and groups (including many inside centralized industries). It was also clear that most of the hundreds of people at the conference were also familiar with VRM as a market category. I didn’t need to talk about that stuff any more. At least not in Europe, where most of the VRM action is.

So, after a very long journey, we’re finally getting started.

In my own case, the journey began when I saw the Internet coming, back in the ’80s.  It was clear to me that the Net would change the world radically, once it allowed commercial activity to flow over its pipes. That floodgate opened on April 30, 1995. Not long after that, I joined the fray as an editor for Linux Journal (where I still am, by the way, more than 20 years later). Then, in 1999, I co-wrote The Cluetrain Manifesto, which delivered this “one clue” above its list of 95 Theses:

not

And then, one decade ago last month, I started ProjectVRM, because that clue wasn’t yet true. Our reach did not exceed the grasp of marketers in the world. If anything, the Net extended marketers’ grasp a lot more than it did ours. (Shoshana Zuboff says their grasp has metastacized into surveillance capitalism. ) In respect to Gibson’s Law, Cluetrain proclaimed an arrived future that was not yet distributed. Our job was to distribute it.

Which we have. And we can start to see results such as those above. So let’s call Phase One a done thing. And start thinking about Phase Two, whatever it will be.

To get that work rolling, here are a few summary facts about ProjectVRM and related efforts.

First, the project itself could hardly be more lightweight, at least administratively. It consists of:

Second, we have a spin-off: Customer Commons, which will do for personal terms of engagement (one each of us can assert online) what Creative Commons (another Berkman-Klein spinoff) did for copyright.

Third, we have a list of many dozens of developers, which seem to be concentrated in Europe and Australia/New Zealand.  Two reasons for that, both speculative:

  1. Privacy. The concept is much more highly sensitive and evolved in Europe than in the U.S. The reason we most often get goes, “Some of our governments once kept detailed records of people, and those records were used to track down and kill many of them.” There are also more evolved laws respecting privacy. In Australia there have been privacy laws for several years requiring those collecting data about individuals to make it available to them, in forms the individual specifies. And in Europe there is the General Data Protection Regulation, which will impose severe penalties for unwelcome data gathering from individuals, starting in 2018.
  2. Enlightened investment. Meaning investors who want a startup to make a positive difference in the world, and not just give them a unicorn to ride out some exit. (Which seems to have become the default model in the U.S., especially Silicon Valley.)

What we lack is research. And by we I mean the world, and not just ProjectVRM.

Research is normally the first duty of a project at the Berkman Klein Center, which is chartered as a research organization. Research was ProjectVRM’s last duty, however, because we had nothing to research at first. Or, frankly, until now. That’s why we were defined as a development & research project rather than the reverse.

Where and how research on VRM and related efforts happens is a wide open question. What matters is that it needs to be done, starting soon, while the “before” state still prevails in most of the world, and the future is still on its way in delivery trucks. Who does that research matters far less than the research itself.

So we are poised at a transitional point now. Let the conversations about Phase Two commence.

 

 

 

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What small businesses and their customers have in common

small vs largeSmall businesses and their customers both have problems dealing with big businesses that are more vested in captive markets than in free ones. So, since VRM is about independence and engagement, we may have an opportunity for customers and small businesses to join in common cause.

To dig deeper into that possibility, I interviewed LaVonne Reimer, who runs Lumenous (a startup that  provides ways for small businesses to create and share credit profiles on their own terms). Here goes—

DS: How big is small business?

LR: The domestic small business market in the U.S. is currently at 28 million firms. This includes employer and non-employer firms that provide products or services to their neighborhoods and communities as well as those that provide a unique offering to a larger supply chain or marketplace.

The impact of credit decisions is another big number—how at least $4 trillion flows to small business in the U.S.. That includes a significant portion of over $1 trillion in federal contracts and grants, and $700 billion in loans, a substantial portion of which are backed by the Small Business Administration (SBA).

DS: What’s the biggest issue for small business, and how is that similar to issues for individuals?

LR: Credit. The $28 billion credit industry provides creditworthiness indicators as well as personal identity and entity verification for both businesses and individuals. From the standpoint of both, that industry is a collection of black boxes. They are unaccountable collections of algorithms that can make or break a business, or often its owner, without explaining why. Or even knowing why.

The incumbent with the biggest impact on small business credit is Dun & Bradstreet. Founded in 1841, D&B is the grandfather of all credit bureaus and in many respects the originator of corporate surveillance.  And now D&B is in the identity business as well, putting those being identified at D&B’s mercy.

DS: How?

LR: Through the Data Universal Numbering System, better known as DUNS. It’s a loss leader that gives D&B a potent tool for finding and extracting information from business owners not otherwise publicly available. And it’s all done out of the sight of the business, and—effectively—government as well.

DS: Are they alone at this?

LR: No. A handful of venture-backed “fintech” startups are using similar technology to harvest data. Some of the data gathering might be initially authorized by the business owner. Other data they can scrape or mine from the Web to determine creditworthiness for purposes of making loans. Many do not disclose “effective APR” but recent Federal Reserve System research suggests the range may be from over 50% at the low end to somewhere in the hundreds. Business owners may get loans they couldn’t get from regulated or traditional banks but are blind-sided by onerous terms and in some cases thrown into bankruptcy because the collection model—daily automated micro-payments—catches them off guard, for example by triggering excessive non-sufficient funds (NSF) fees. To a business owner, these providers seem much like credit bureaus. There is no way yet to leverage or re-use the data you have to supply to get the loan, much less understand how the algorithms work.

I should add that a small business “bill of rights” has been circulating among start-ups; but it under-estimates the degree to which the odds are stacked against a small business across commercial credit.”

DS: What about government oversight?

LR: Today, consumer identity and credit providers must comply with the Fair Credit Reporting Act, but the FCRA and similar regulations do not govern small business credit, not even when consumer credit information is used to verify the identity and creditworthiness of the entity and owner.

There is, however, increasing scrutiny by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) of big data systems in credit profiling and other data brokers. In multiple enforcement orders and two major reports, the FTC is calling on identity and data providers to demonstrate greater transparency and accountability in the uses of personal data. One report is Big Data: A Tool for Inclusion or Exclusion? The other is “Data Brokers: A Call for Transparency and Accountability.

Still, as is true of the Fair Credit Reporting Act, small business is left unaddressed, even if creditors use consumer credit information associated with the owner of the business.

DS: What outcomes are we looking for here?

LR:  At Lumenous, we are applying the principles of VRM to transform the relationship between small business and creditors. As a result, up to six million small employer firms will be able to access the credit, capital, and commerce they deserve.. This will lead to better leverage of cash and ability to not only meet payroll and pay bills on time, but also better contribute to the economic well-being of their communities. Twenty-two million “non employer firms”—freelancers and sole proprietors, for example—will have access to credit, and more easily form trusted joint ventures to bid on otherwise out-of-reach projects.

DS: Are there any large companies that are working to bring small business and their customers together in the fight to improve the economy from the bottom up?

LR: I really like what Xero is doing. It is far more friendly and useful to small business than other accounting software and services companies (especially Quickbooks). It’s growing rapidly too. I believe that;s because it has a deep understanding of how small business works, and a genuine respect for how small business owners think about their firms, and those firms’ roles in the world.

DS: I noticed. Xero’s CEO, Rod Drury, sourced a recent post of mine in a talk he gave just a few days ago. And Gary Turner, an old friend from my Cluetrain days, is Managing Director of Xero in the UK. I’ll be talking with both in the next few days as well.

LR: I expect that Xero will also have lots of useful intelligence about what’s actually happening with small business, worldwide—and with possible VRM connections.

And here are some bonus sources, mostly courtesy of LaVonne:

There are many more, but I’ll save those for a follow-up post.

 

 

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What VRM is about

ie

ProjectVRM fosters development of tools and services that make every person both independent of others (especially companies), yet better able to engage with them. There are a lot of developers doing that now, but we could use a lot more. Bigger ones, too.

Our main problem, to the small degree we have one, is VRM as a TLA (three letter acronym). Each of the three letters—Vendor, Relationship and Management—is a one-word MEGO: a four-letter acronym that says “my eyes (or ears) glaze over.”

I bring this up because we are often asked why we don’t have a less boring name for what is becoming an exciting category, and something that’s finally catching on. The answer is that the baby got named long ago, and changing what we call it now is, to use a FLA, a PITA.

Meanwhile, I kinda like the little image I put up, above, just to see if it has any box office.

 

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VRM at MyData2016

mydata2016-image

As it happens I’m in Helsinki right now, for MyData2016, where I’ll be speaking on Thursday morning. My topic: The Power of the Individual. There is also a hackathon (led by DataBusiness.fi) going on during the show, starting at 4pm (local time) today. In no order of priority, here are just some of the subjects and players I’ll be dealing with,  talking to, and talking up (much as I can):

Please let me know what others belong on this list. And see you at the show.

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Is Facebook working on a VRM system? Or just another way to do ads?

It’s easy to get caught up in news that WhatsApp is starting to accept advertising (after they said they would never do that), and miss the deeper point of what’s really going on: Facebook setting up a new bot-based channel through which companies and customers can communicate. Like this:

vrmcrmbot

The word balloon is Facebook Messenger. But it could be WhatsApp too. From a VRM perspective, what matters is whether or not “Messenger bots” work as VRM tools, meaning they obey the individual user’s commands (and not just those of Facebook’s corporate customers). We don’t know yet. Hence the question mark.

But before we get to exploring the possibilities here (which could be immense), we need to visit and dismiss the main distractions.

Those start with Why we don’t sell ads, posted on the WhatsApp blog on 18 June 2012. Here are the money grafs from that one:

We knew we could do what most people aim to do every day: avoid ads.
No one wakes up excited to see more advertising, no one goes to sleep thinking about the ads they’ll see tomorrow. We know people go to sleep excited about who they chatted with that day (and disappointed about who they didn’t). We want WhatsApp to be the product that keeps you awake… and that you reach for in the morning. No one jumps up from a nap and runs to see an advertisement.

Advertising isn’t just the disruption of aesthetics, the insults to your intelligence and the interruption of your train of thought. At every company that sells ads, a significant portion of their engineering team spends their day tuning data mining, writing better code to collect all your personal data, upgrading the servers that hold all the data and making sure it’s all being logged and collated and sliced and packaged and shipped out… And at the end of the day the result of it all is a slightly different advertising banner in your browser or on your mobile screen.

Remember, when advertising is involved you the user are the product.

Great stuff. But that was then and this is now. In WhatsApp’s latest post, Looking Ahead for WhatsApp (25 August), we have the about-face:

But by coordinating more with Facebook, we’ll be able to do things like track basic metrics about how often people use our services and better fight spam on WhatsApp. And by connecting your phone number with Facebook’s systems, Facebook can offer better friend suggestions and show you more relevant ads if you have an account with them. For example, you might see an ad from a company you already work with, rather than one from someone you’ve never heard of. You can learn more, including how to control the use of your data, here.

Pretty yucky, huh?

Earlier in the same post, however, WhatsApp says,

we want to explore ways for you to communicate with businesses that matter to you too

Interesting: Mark Zuckerberg said the same thing when he introduced messenger bots, back in April. In the video at that link, Zuck said,

Now that Messenger has scaled, we’re starting to develop ecosystems around it. And the first thing we’re doing is exploring how you can all communicate with businesses.

You probably interact with dozens of businesses every day. And some of them are probably really meaningful to you. But I’ve never met anyone who likes calling a business. And no one wants to have to install a new app for every service or business they want to interact with. So we think there’s gotta be a better way to do this.

We think you should be able to message a business the same way you message a friend. You should get a quick response, and it shouldn’t take your full attention, like a phone call would. And you shouldn’t have to install a new app.

Note the similarities in the set-up:

  1. Zuck:  “how you can all communicate with business.”
  2. WhatsApp: “explore ways for you to communicate with businesses.”

This is, or should be, pure VRM:  a way for a customer to issue a service request, or to intentcast for bids on a new washing machine or a car. In other words, what they seem to be talking about here is a new communication channel between customers and businesses that can relieve  the typical pains of being a customer while also opening the floodgates of demand notifying supply when it’s ready to buy. Back to Zuck:

So today we’re launching Messenger Platform. So you can build bots for Messenger.

By “you” Zuck means the developers he was addressing that day. I assume these were developers working for businesses that avoid customer contact and would rather have robots take over everything possible, because that’s the norm these days. But I could be wrong. He continues,

And it’s a simple platform, powered by artificial intelligence, so you can build natural language services to communicate directly with people. So let’s take a look.

CNN, for example, is going to be able to send you a daily digest of stories, right into messenger. And the more you use it, the more personalized it will get. And if you want to learn more about a specific topic, say a Supreme Court nomination or the zika virus, you just send a message and it will send you that information.

The antecedents of “you” move around here. Could be he’s misdirecting attention away from surveillance. Can’t tell. But it is clear that he’s looking past advertising alone as a way to make money.

Back to the WhatsApp post:

Whether it’s hearing from your bank about a potentially fraudulent transaction, or getting notified by an airline about a delayed flight, many of us get this information elsewhere, including in text messages and phone calls.

This also echoes what Zuck said in April. In both cases it’s about companies communicating with you, not about you communicating with companies. Would bots work both ways?

In “‘Bot’ is the wrong name…and why people who think it’s silly are wrong”, Aaron Batalion says all kinds of functionality now found only in apps will move to bots—Messenger’s in particular. “In a micro app world, you build one experience on the Facebook platform and reach 1B people.”

How about building a one-experience bot so 1B people can reach businesses the same way?

Imagine, for example, that you can notify every company you deal with that your last name has changed, or you’ve replaced a credit card. It would be great to do that in one move. It would also be VRM 101. But, almost ten years into our project, nobody has built that yet. Is Facebook doing it?

Frankly, I hope not, because I don’t want to see VRM trapped inside a giant silo.

That’s why I just put up Market intelligence that flows both ways, over in Medium. (It’s a much-updated version of a post I put up here several years ago.)

In that post I describe a much better approach, based on open source code, that doesn’t require locating your soul inside a large company for which, as WhatsApp put it four years ago, you’re the product.

Here’s a diagram that shows how one person (myself, in this case) can relate to a company whose moccasins he owns:

vrmcrmconduit

The moccasins have their own pico: a cloud on the Net for a thing in the physical world. For VRM and CRM purposes, this one is a relationship conduit between customer and company.

A pico of this type comes in to being when the customer assigns the QR code to the moccasins and scans it. The customer and company can then share records about the product, or notify the other party when there’s a problem, a bargain on a new pair, or whatever. It’s tabula rasa: wide open.

The current code for this is called Wrangler. It’s open source and in Github. For the curious, Phil Windley explains how picos work in Reactive Programming With Picos.

I’ll continue on this theme in the next post. Meanwhile, my main purpose with this one is to borrow interest in where Facebook is going (if I’m guessing right) with Messenger bots, and do it one better in the open and un-silo’d world, while we still have one to hack.

 

 

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It’s People vs. Advertising, not Publishers vs. Adblockers

By now hundreds of millions of people have gone to the privacy aisles of the pharmacy departments  in their local app stores and chosen a brand of sunblock to protect themselves from unwanted exposure to the harmful rays of advertising online.

There are many choices among potions on those shelves, but basically they do one, two or three of these things:

blockers

The most popular ad blocker, Adblock Plus, is configurable to do all three, but defaults to allow “acceptable”* ads and not to block tracking.

Tracking protection products, such as Baycloud Bouncer, Ghostery, Privacy Badger and RedMorph, are not ad blockers, but can be mistaken for them. (That’s what happens for me when I’m looking at Wired through Privacy Badger on Firefox.)

It is important to recognize these distinctions, for two reasons:

  1. Ad blocking, allowing “acceptable” ads, and tracking protection are different things.
  2. All three of those things answer market demand. They are clear evidence of the marketplace at work.

Meanwhle, nearly all press coverage of what’s going on here defaults to “(name of publisher or website here) vs. ad blockers.”

This  misdirects attention away from what is actually going on: people making choices in the open market to protect themselves from intrusions they do not want.

Ad blocking and tracking protection are effects, not causes. Blame for them should not go to the people protecting themselves, or to those providing them with means for protection, but to the sources and agents of harm. Those are:

  1. Companies producing ads (aka brands)
  2. Companies distributing the ads
  3. Companies publishing the ads
  4. All producers of unwanted tracking

That’s it.

Until we shift discussion to the simple causes and effects of supply and demand, with full respect for individual human beings and the legitimate choices they make in the open marketplace, to protect the sovereign personal spaces in their lives online, we’ll be stuck in war and sports coverage that misses the simple facts underlying the whole damn thing.

Until we get straight what’s going on here, we won’t be able to save those who pay for and benefit from advertising online.

Which I am convinced we can do. I’ve written plenty about that already here.

* These are controversial. I don’t go into that here, however, because I want to shift attention from spin to facts.

 

 

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At last, a protocol to connect VRM and CRM

person-entity

We’ve been waiting a long time for a protocol to connect VRM (customers’ Vendor Relationship Management) with CRM (vendors’ Customer Relationship Management).

Now we have one. It’s called JLINC, and it’s from JLINC Labs. It’s also open source. You’ll find it at Github, here. It’s still early, at v.0.3. So there’s lots of opportunity for developers and constructive hackers of all kinds to get involved.

Specifically, JLINC is a protocol for sharing data protected by the terms under which it is shared, such as those under development by Customer Commons and the Consent and Information Sharing Working Group (CISWG) at Kantara.

The sharing instance is permanently recorded in a distributed ledger (such as a blockchain) so that both sharer and recipient have a permanent record of what was agreed to. Additionally, both parties can build up an aggregated view of their information sharing over time, so they (or their systems) can learn from and optimize it.

The central concept in JLINC is an Information Sharing Agreement (ISA). This allows for—

  1. the schema related to the data being shared so that the data can be understood by the recipient without prior agreement
  2. the terms associated with the data being shared so that they can be understood by the recipient without prior negotiation
  3. the sharing instance, and any subsequent onward sharing under the same terms, to be permanently recorded on a distributed ledger of subsequent use (compliance and analytics)

To test and demonstrate how this works, JLINC built a demonstrator to bring these three scenarios to life. The first one tackled is Intentcasting , a long-awaited promise of VRM. With an Intencast, the customer advertises her intention to buy something, essentially becoming a qualified lead. (Here are all the ProjectVRM blog posts here with the Intentcasting tag.)

Obviously, the customer can’t blab her buying intention out to the whole world, or marketers would swarm her like flies, suck up her exposed data, spam her with offers, and sell or give away her data to countless other parties.

With JLINC, intention data is made available only when the customer’s terms are signed. Those terms specify permitted uses. Here is one such set (written for site visiting, rather than intentcasting):

UserSubmittedTerms2ndDraft

These say the person’s (first party’s) data is being shared exclusively with the second party (the site), for no limit in time, for the site’s use only, provided the site also obey the customer’s Do Not Track signal. I’m showing it because it lays out one way terms can work in a familiar setting

For JLINC’s intentcasting demonstration, terms were limited to second party use only, and a duration of thirty days. But here’s the important part: the intentcast spoke to a Salesforce CRM system, which was able to—

  1. accept or reject the terms, and
  2. respond to the intentcast with an offer,
  3. while the handshake between the two was recorded in a blockchain both parties could access

This means that JLINC is not only a working protocol, but that there are ways for VRM tools and systems to use JLINC to engage CRM systems. It also means there are countless new development opportunities on both sides, working together or separately.

Here’s another cool thing:  the two biggest CRM companies, Salesforce and Oracle, will hold their big annual gatherings in the next few weeks. This means JLINC and VRM+CRM can be the subjects of both conversation and hacking at either or both events. Specifically, here are the dates:

  1. Oracle’s OpenWorld 2016 will be September 18-22.
  2. Salesforce’s Dreamforce 2016  will be October 4-7.

Both will be at the Moscone Center in San Francisco.

Conveniently, the next VRM Day and IIW will both also happen, as usual, at the end of October:

  1. VRM Day will be October 24.
  2. Internet Identity Workshop (IIW’s XXIIIth) will be October 25-27.

Both will take place at the Computer History Museum, in downtown Silicon Valley. And JLINC, which was launched at the last VRM Day, is sure to be a main topic of discussion, starting at VRM Day and continuing through IIW, which I consider the most leveraged conference in the world, especially for the price.

If all goes well, we’ll have some examples of VRM+(Oracle and/or Salesforce) CRM to show off at Demo Day at IIW.

Love to see other CRM vendors show up too. You listening, SugarCRM? (I spoke about VRM+CRM at SugarCon in 2011. Here’s my deck from that talk. What we lacked then, and since, was a protocol for that “+”. Now we have it. )

Big HT to Iain Henderson of both JLINC Labs and Customer Commons, for guiding this post, as well as conducting the test that showed, hey, it can be done!

 

 

 

 

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If it weren’t for retargeting, we might not have ad blocking

jblflip2This is a shopping vs. advertising story that starts with the JBP Flip 2 portable speaker I bought last year, when Radio Shack was going bankrupt and unloading gear in “Everything Must Go!” sales. I got it half-off for $50, choosing it over competing units on the same half-bare shelves, mostly because of the JBL name, which I’ve respected for decades. Before that I’d never even listened to one.

The battery life wasn’t great, but the sound it produced was much better than anything my laptop, phone or tablet put out. It was also small, about the size of a  beer can, so I could easily take it with me on the road. Which I did. A lot.

Alas, like too many other small devices, the Flip 2’s power jack was USB micro-b. That’s the tiny flat one that all but requires a magnifying glass to see which side is up, and tends to damage the socket if you don’t slip it in exactly right, or if you force it somehow. While micro-b jacks are all design-flawed that way, the one in my Flip 2 was so awful that it took great concentration to make sure the plug jacked in without buggering the socket.

Which happened anyway. One day, at an AirBnB in Maine, the Flip 2’s USB socket finally failed. The charger cable would fit into the socket, but the socket was loose, and the speaker wouldn’t take a charge. After efforts at resuscitation failed, I declared the Flip 2 dead.

But I was still open to buying another one. So, to replace it, I did what most of us do: I went to Amazon. Naturally, there were plenty of choices, including JBL Flip 2s and newer Flip 3s, at attractive prices. But Consumer Reports told me the best of the bunch was the Bose Soundlink Color, for $116.

So I bought a white Bose, because my wife liked that better than the red JBL.

The Bose filled Consumer Reports’ promise. While it isn’t stereo, it sounds much better than the JBL (voice quality and bass notes are remarkable). It’s also about the same size (though with a boxy rather than a cylindrical shape), has better battery life, and a better user interface. I hate that it  charges through a micro-b jack, but at least this one is easier to plug and unplug than the Flip 2 had been. So that story had a happy beginning, at least for me and Bose.

It was not happy, however, for me and Amazon.

Remember when Amazon product pages were no longer than they needed to be? Those days are gone. Now pages for every product seem to get longer and longer, and can take forever to load. Worse, Amazon’s index page is now encrusted with promotional jive. Seems like nearly everything “above the fold” (before you scroll down) is now a promo for Amazon Fashion, the latest Kindle, Amazon Prime, or the company credit card—plus rows of stuff “inspired by your shopping trends” and “related to items you’ve viewed.”

But at least that stuff risks being useful. What happens when you leave the site, however, isn’t. That’s because, unless you’re running an ad blocker or tracking protection, Amazon ads for stuff you just viewed, or put in your shopping cart, follow you from one ad-supported site to another, barking at you like a crazed dog. For example:

amazon1

I lost count of how many times, and in how many places, I saw this Amazon ad, or one like it, for one speaker, the other, or both, after I finished shopping and put the Bose speaker in my cart.

Why would Amazon advertise something at me that I’ve already bought, along with a competing product I obviously chose not to buy? Why would Amazon think it’s okay to follow me around when I’m not in their store? And why would they think that kind of harassment is required, or even okay, especially when the target has been a devoted customer for more than two decades, and sure to return and buy all kinds of stuff anyway?  Jeez, they have my business!

And why would they go out of their way to appear both stupid and robotic?

The answers, whatever they are, are sure to be both fully rationalized and psychotic, meaning disconnected from reality, which is the marketplace where real customers live, and get pissed off.

And Amazon is hardly alone at this. In fact the practice is so common that it became an Onion story in October 2018: Woman Stalked Across 8 Websites By Obsessed Shoe Advertisement.

The ad industry’s calls this kind of stalking “retargeting,” and it is the most obvious evidence that we are being tracked on the Net. The manners behind this are completely at odds with those in the physical world, where no store would place a tracking beacon on your body and use it to follow you everywhere you go after you leave. But doing exactly that is pro forma for marketing in the digital world.

When you click on that little triangular symbol in the corner of the ad, you can see how the “interactive” wing of the advertising business, generally called adtech, rationalizes surveillance:

adchoices1The program is called AdChoices, and it’s a creation of those entities in the lower right corner. The delusional conceits behind AdChoices are many:

  1. That Ad Choices is “yours.” It’s not. It’s theirs.
  2. That “right ads” exist, and that we want them to find us, at all times.
  3. That making the choices they provide actually gives us control of advertising online.
  4. That our personal agency—the power to act with full effect in the world—is a grace of marketers, and not of our own independent selves.

Not long after I did that little bit of shopping on Amazon, I also did a friend the favor of looking for clothes washers, since the one in her basement crapped out and she’s one of those few people who don’t use the Internet and never will. Again I consulted Consumer Reports, which recommended a certain LG washer in my friend’s price range. I looked for it on the Web and found the best price was at Home Depot. So I told her about it, and that was that.

For me that should have been the end of it. But it wasn’t, because now I was being followed by Home Depot ads for the same LG washer and other products I wasn’t going to buy, from Home Depot or anybody else. Here’s one:

homedepot1

Needless to say, this didn’t endear me to Home Depot, to LG, or to any of the sites where I got hit with these ads.

All these parties failed not only in their mission to sell me something, but to enhance their own brands. Instead they subtracted value for everybody in the supply chain of unwelcome tracking and unwanted message targeting. They also explain (as Don Marti does here) why ad blocking has grown exactly in pace with growth in retargeting.

I subjected myself to all this by experimentally turning off tracking protection and ad blockers on one of my browsers, so I could see how the commercial Web works for the shrinking percentage of people who don’t protect themselves from this kind of abuse. I do a lot of that, as part of my work with ProjectVRM. I also experiment a lot with different kinds of tracking protection and ad blocking, because the developers of those tools are encouraged by that same work here.

For those new to the project, VRM stands for Vendor Relationship Management, the customer-side counterpart of Customer Relationship Management, the many-$billion business by which companies manage their dealings with customers—or try to.

Our purpose with ProjectVRM is to encourage development of tools that give us both independence from the companies we engage with, and better ways of engaging than CRM alone provides: ways of engaging that we own, and are under our control. And relate to the CRM systems of the world as well. Our goal is VRM+CRM, not VRM vs. CRM.

Ad blocking and tracking protection are today at the leading edge of VRM development, because they are popular and give us independence. Engagement, however, isn’t here yet—at least not at the same level of popularity. And it probably won’t get here until we finish curing business of the brain cancer that adtech has become.

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Humanizing the Great Ad Machine

This is a comment I couldn’t publish under this post before my laptop died. (Fortunately I sent it to my wife first, so I’m posting it here, from her machine.)

OMMA’s theme is “Humanizing the Great Ad Machine”  Good one. Unfortunately, the agenda and speaker list suggest that industry players are the only ones in a position to do that. They aren’t..

The human targets of the Great Ad Machine are actually taking the lead—by breaking it.

Starting with ad blocking and tracking protection.

I see no evidence of respect for that fact, however, in the posts and tweets (at #MPOMMA) coming out of the conference so far. Maybe we can change that.

Let’s start by answering the question raised by the headline in Ad Blocking and DVRs: How Similar? I can speak as an operator of both technologies, and as a veteran marketer as well. So look at the rest of this post as the speech I’d give if I was there at OMMA…

Ad blocking and DVRs have four main things in common.

1) They are instruments of personal independence;

2) They answer demand for avoiding advertising. That demand exists because most advertising wastes time and space in people’s lives, and people value those two things more than whatever good advertising does for the “content” economy;

3) Advertising agents fail to grok this message; which is why—

4) Advertising agents and the “interactive” ad industry cry foul and blame the messengers (including the makers of ad blockers and other forms of tracking protection), rather than listening to, or respecting, what the market tells them, loudly and clearly.

Wash, rinse and repeat.

The first wash was VCRs. Those got rinsed out by digital TV. The second wash was DVRs. Those are being rinsed out right now by the Internet. The third wash is ad blocking.

The next rinse will happen after ad blocking succeeds as chemo for the cancer of ads that millions on the receiving end don’t want.

The next wash will be companies spending their marketing money on listening for better signals of demand from the marketplace, and better ways of servicing existing customers after the sale.

This can easily happen because damn near everybody is on the Net now, or headed there. Not trapped on TV or any other closed, one-way, top-down, industry-controlled distribution system.

On the Net, everybody has a platform of their own. There is no limit to what can be built on that platform, including much better instruments for expressing demand, and much better control over private personal spaces and the ways personal data are used by others. Ad blocking is just the first step in that direction.

The adtech industry (including dependent publishers) can come up with all the “solutions” they want to the ad blocking “problem.” All will fail, because ad blocking is actually a solution the market—hundreds of millions of real human beings—demands. Every one of adtech’s “solutions” is a losing game of whack-a-mole where the ones with hammers bang their own heads.

For help looking past that game, consider these:

1) The Interent as we know it is 21 years old. Commercial activity on it has only been possible since April 30, 1995. The history of marketing on the Net since then has been a series of formative moments and provisional systems, not a permanent state. In other words, marketing on the Net isn’t turtles all the way down, it’s scaffolding. Facebook, Google and the rest of the online advertising world exist by the grace of provisional models that have been working for only a few years, and can easily collapse if something better comes along. Which it will. Inevitably. Because…

2) When customers can signal demand better than adtech can manipulate it or guess at it, adtech will collapse like a bad soufflé.

3) Plain old brand advertising, which has always been aimed at populations rather than people, isn’t based on surveillance, and has great brand-building value, will carry on, free of adtech, doing what only it can do. (See the Ad Contrarian for more on that.)

In the long run (which may be short) winners will be customers and the companies that serve them  respectfully. Not more clueless and manipulative surveillance-based marketing schemes.

Winning companies will respect customers’ independence and intentions. Among those intentions will be terms that specify what can be done with shared personal data. Those terms will be supplied primarily by customers, and companies will agree to those terms because they will be friendly, work well for both sides, and easily automated.

Having standard ways for signaling demand and controlling use of personal data will give customers the same kind of scale companies have always had across many customers. On the Net, scale can work in both directions.

Companies that continue to rationalize spying on and abusing people, at high costs to everybody other than those still making hay while the sun shines, will lose. The hay-makers will also lose as soon as the light of personal tolerance for abuse goes out, which will come when ad blocking and tracking protection together approach ubiquity.

But the hay-makers can still win if they start listening to high-value signals coming from customers. It won’t be hard, and it will pay off.

The market is people, folks. Everybody with a computer or a smart mobile device is on the Net now. They are no longer captive “consumers” at the far ends of one-way plumbing systems for “content.” The Net was designed in the first place for everybody, not just for marketers who build scaffolding atop customer dislike and mistake it for solid ground.

It should also help to remember that the only business calling companies “advertisers” is advertising. No company looks in the mirror and sees an advertiser there. That’s because no company goes into business just so they can advertise. They see a car maker, a shoe store, a bank, a brewer, or a grocer. Advertising is just overhead for them. I learned this lesson the hard way as a partner for 20 years in a very successful ad agency. Even if our clients loved us, they could cut their ad budget to nothing in an instant, or on a whim.

There’s a new world of marketing waiting to happen out there in the wide-open customer-driven marketplace. But it won’t grow out of today’s Great Ad Machine. It’ll grow out of new tech built on the customers’ side, with ad blocking and tracking protection as the first examples. Maybe some of that tech is visible at OMMA. Or at least maybe there’s an open door to it. If either is there, let’s see it. Hashtag: #VRM. (For more on that, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vendor_relationship_management.)

If not, you can still find developers here .

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